The Self and Humanistic Psychology

Donald E Polkinghorne. The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, Research, and Practice. Editor: Kirk J Schneider. Sage Publications. 2001.

One significant contribution of the founders of humanistic psychology was reintroducing the self into the conversation of psychology. Since the time when the founders wrote, significant changes have taken place in psychological and philosophical theory. As the founders of humanistic psychology engaged the behavioral and psychoanalytic views of their day, current humanistic psychologists need to engage present-day academic psychology and philosophy. The insights of the founders need to be reformulated in light of the contemporary opposition to the humanistic understanding of the self and its actualization. This chapter presents the rudiments of such an engagement and reformulation. The introductory section presents a brief formulation of the founders’ understanding of the self. The subsequent section outlines the absence of the self in current academic psychological research and in current philosophical theory. The concluding section introduces several contemporary theorists whose ideas can be helpful in the development of a present-day formulation of the founders’ view of the self.

The Founders’ View of the Self

The self was an important topic during the early period of the history of psychology, and it held a central position for writers such as James (1890) and Baldwin (1916). However, with the advent of behaviorism during the 1920s, the discipline abandoned its concern with the self (Epstein, 1980). Thereafter, American academic psychology left further development of the notion of self to sociologists such as Cooley, Mead, and Goffman (Danziger, 1997). Thus, when humanistic psychologist Allport (1955) made his call for readmitting the self into psychology, it was not a call for a continuation of work on the self that had been under way in psychology but rather a call to introduce a new concern for the self back into psychology. Allport wrote,

Until about 1890, certain American writers, including Dewey, Royce, [and] James, continued to regard self as a necessary concept. They felt that the analytical concepts of the New Psychology lost the manifest unity of mental functioning. But for the ensuing fifty years, very few American psychologists made use of it … and none employed “soul.” (p. 36)

Other founders of humanistic psychology, such as Maslow, Rogers, May, and Bugental, also held that it was necessary to reintroduce the idea of self into psychological theory so as to understand people’s lives. The self became a cornerstone in their view of the development of the inherent possibilities of human existence and of the process through which positive changes occurred in their psychotherapeutic work with clients.

The Self as the Tendency for Growth

The founders’ view of the self is that it is a pattern of change. Rogers held that all living things have an essential pattern of dynamic change that serves to move them toward their full and mature development. In a human, this innate pattern of growth toward full development includes not only the physical growth of the body but also the psychological growth to the full unique potential inherent in the person. The self is this natural tendency or force to actualize the fullness of an individual’s personhood. Rogers (1986) gave the following description of this actualizing tendency:

The person-centered approach depends on the actualizing tendency present in every living organism—the tendency to grow, to develop, to realize its full potential. This way of being trusts the constructive directional flow of the human being toward a more complex and complete development. (p. 200)

The founders varied in their understanding of the role of personal will in actualizing the self or tendency toward growth. On the one hand, Rogers viewed the actualization of one’s human potential as a natural process that would culminate in a fully functioning person unless thwarted by environmental constraints such as lack of positive regard from one’s parents. On the other hand, more existentially influenced humanistic psychologists stressed the idea that actualization of one’s potential required personal courage and will. Maslow (1968) suggested that Rogers had “perhaps understressed the factors of will, of decision, and of the ways in which we do make ourselves by our choices” (p. 17).

The founders understood self not as mind or a thing but rather a propensity. It is a “pure process, pure subject I [self]” (Bugental, 1965, p. 213), or a becoming (Allport, 1955), not a static and unchanging structure. One’s self is the urge to develop the fullness inherent in one’s existence, in other words, the drive (not in Freud’s sense) to become the person one truly and authentically can be. Thus, the essence of self is a tendency to grow to fullness, and it is the essential characteristic of humans.

The revolutionary impact of the humanistic idea of the self reflected in the writings of the founders can be seen against the background of the other operating views of the nature of self. The humanistic view was that the self is the intrinsic innate tendency to actualize one’s unique potential for full human existence. The founders differentiated their view of the self from that of the psychoanalytic ego. May (1958) wrote, “The‘I-am’ experience must not be identified with what is called in various circles the ‘functioning of the ego’ ” (pp. 45-46). Freud conceived the ego as a relatively weak, passive, and derived agent that was an epiphenomenon of id drives. It functioned to negotiate between internalized societal restraints (superego) and the need to reduce the tensions built up from unreleased id forces. May acknowledged that developments in psychoanalytic theory, such as ego psychology by Anna Freud, gave an increased importance to the ego in personality. However, her emphasis was primarily on an expanded understanding of the role of the ego in developing and maintaining defense mechanisms, not on the positive tendency toward growth, which was the central characteristic of the self.

The founders’ idea of the self also differed from a Cartesianlike notion that the self is a type of mental or material substance whose function is simply to serve as a person’s executive, taking in information and initiating bodily actions to affect the environment. In its executive function, the self was held to be the seat of reason and thought of as an observer of representations of objects produced by the body’s senses. In this view, the self was held to be a nonmaterial psyche or mindlike homun-culus, residing inside the bodily person and with the power to direct the body’s movements. In addition, the founders’ notion of the self as innate did not concur with Mead’s (1934) view that the self is something that has to be constructed by society after birth out of an essentially receptive and formless organism.

Allport (1955), recognizing that the term self had so many confusing meanings, suggested that humanistic psychology select another term (his proposal was proprium) to emphasize the uniqueness of the humanistic understanding of the self as a tendency rather than a thing. “Psychologists who allow for the proprium use both the term[s]‘self’ and‘ego’—often interchangeably— and both terms are defined with varying degrees of narrowness or comprehensiveness” (p. 40).

The Self Versus the Self-Concept

In their view of the self, the founders made a crucial distinction between the actual self and the understandings that people have about the self. People’s understanding of who and what they are is called self-concept. The significance of the distinction between self and self-concept derives from the founders’ position that people act and respond on the basis of their understandings of how things are rather than how things actually are. They held that people are guided in their behavior by their implicit understandings and theories of reality (Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997). Rogers said that people act out of their “internal frame of reference” (Rogers, 1959, p. 213) and that “I do not react to some absolute reality but [rather] to my perception of this reality. It is this perception which for me is reality” (Rogers, 1951, p. 484).

The conceptual understandings that people have of the world, others, and the self serve not only to highlight and give meaning to some experiences but also to cover over and make inaccessible other experiences. The voice of one’s actual self as a force or growth and actualization of positive possibilities can be drowned out by conceptual schemes imposed by society and enforced by significant people in one’s life. These schemes often can lead people to understand their selves as static and unchangeable things that do not measure up to social expectations; they appear as being stuck in their present conditions and without possibilities. However, the realization that the socially imposed notions of their selves do not represent who and what people really are frees them to turn their attention to the submerged voices of their selves. If one’s conceptual schemes are open enough, then they can allow the real self beneath the distorting understandings to be directly felt. Stagner (1961) stated that the experience of the self is a

kind of primitive experience about which communication is virtually impossible…. One can experience self, but this experience must be uniquely personal…. “I am what I am” is the succinct biblical assertion that selfhood cannot be further defined but must be experienced. (p. 185)

May (1958) described the coming to experience the real self as an “I am” experience or “a sense of being” (p. 43).

People often are aware of a tension between the felt experience of their selves and the conflicting conceptual understandings they have of the self. The awareness of a division between the experienced self and the self-concept was described by Laing (1960) as a “divided self.” Rogers (1961), in discussing this experience, wrote, “When there is no relationship in which we are able to communicate both aspects of our divided self—our conscious facade and our deeper level of experiencing—then we feel the loneliness of not being in real touch with any human being” (p. 94).

The unmediated experience of the self can serve to correct a person’s understanding of who and what he or she is. The experience can re-form the imposed concept of self into one that displays self as a basic tendency to fully actualize the possibilities inherent in being a person. When the self-concept accurately depicts the self, it is said to be congruent. When it inaccurately depicts the self, it is said to be incongruent.

Actualization of the Self

For the founders, the goal of human existence is to fully actualize the potential inherent in one’s humanness. The means to achieving this goal is to gain access to the inherent force that impels growth to full humanness. One gains access to this force when the self-concept allows its presence into awareness. The founders emphasized that the real self has to appear or be accurately depicted in conscious awareness if it is to affect behavior. When conscious thought displays the real self, a person is most free to become fully functioning. The person is able to make choices that express his or her authentic values and to have available the undistorted full range of his or her life possibilities. The ideal, fully functioning person is in a state of congruence; that is, no disharmony exists between the self-concept and the actualizing tendency.

The concept of the actualized or fully functioning person is an ideal that represents the ultimate actualization of the human organism. In life, a person does not achieve this absolute state. Actualization is not a static and stable condition that one becomes. In life as lived, people are fully functioning in relative terms—some more so, some less so. Self-actualization is a process in which a person grows toward the ideal. Thus, Maslow preferred to use a verb form—self-actualizing. Authentically being human involves the movement toward, not the achievement of, the full actualization of the potential that is inherent in humans. As a process on the way, one experiences the self as a history, a story of the temporal movements toward and retreats from realization of one’s full potential. May (1958) captured the dynamic nature of the self in his description of a “human being”:

The full meaning of the term “human being” will be clearer if the reader will keep in mind that “being” is a participle, a verb form implying that someone is in the process of being something. It is unfortunate that, when used as a general noun in English, the term “being” connotes a static substance, and when used as a particular noun such as a being, it is usually assumed to refer to an entity…. Rather, “being” should be understood, when used as a general noun, to mean potentia, the source of potentiality; “being” is the potentiality by which the acorn becomes the oak or each of us becomes what he truly is. And when used in a particular sense, such as a human being, it always has the dynamic connotation of someone in process, the person being something. Perhaps, therefore, becoming connotes more accurately the meaning of the term in this country. We can understand another human being only as we see what he is moving toward, what he is becoming; and we can know ourselves only as we “project our potentia in action.” The significant tense for human beings is thus the future—that is to say, the critical question is what I am pointing toward, becoming, what I will be in the immediate future. (p. 41)

In summary, the founders of humanistic psychology held that the move to authenticity involved the development of concepts about the self that truly reflect people’s tendency to actualize their human potential. The need for acceptance by others and the press of social conformity produce self-concepts that distort and hide aspects of people’s true selves. Because it is the concepts about the self that guide people’s actions and interactions, when they are incongruent with people’s real selves, people are not able to actualize who they really are; rather, they are directed by socially presented distortions of who they are. When people’s self-concepts are in tune with their real selves, they are free to let their human potential manifest itself. The move toward congruence is a move to a more fully functioning and psychologically healthy person.

New Challenges for Understanding the Self

In the four decades since the founders of humanistic psychology introduced their ideas of the self, academic psychology has turned its attention to mental functioning and cognition, and philosophy has taken up postmodern themes. There is a need to translate the humanistic ideas about the self and actualization into contemporary idioms and to reshape arguments that address the concerns of current audiences.

In the main, contemporary academic psychology and philosophy are as antagonistic to the humanistic notion of the self as were the psychology and philosophy of the founders’ time. Cognitive psychology avoids the idea of self, although it is concerned with self-concept. Postmodern philosophy dismisses the idea of self, although it has much to say about what is wrong with the idea. However, if humanistic psychology is to launch a renaissance (Taylor, 1999), then it will need to confront these current psychological and philosophical views. As the founders had turned to the ideas of existential and phenomenological writers for support in their clash with behaviorism and psychoanalysis, there are ideas of present-day theorists that can offer support for the humanistic psychology idea of the self. Four of these ideas are Neisser’s sources of knowledge of self, Gendlin’s understanding of self as intricacy, Lakoff’s philosophy of the flesh, and Ricoeur’s narrative conception of self.

This section first describes the absence of the self in current approaches in psychology and philosophy and then discusses the four ideas that can serve as contemporary vehicles for the expression of a renewed humanistic account of the self.

Absence of the Self in Current Academic Psychology

Focus on the self continues to remain central to the practice of some psychotherapies such as the humanistic psychotherapies (May, 1958; Rogers, 1959), self psychology (Kohut, 1977), and narrative-informed psychoanalysis (Schafer, 1992). However, attention to the self per se has been absent in academically based psychology, and the more recently academically derived psychotherapies focus on changing behavior through altering environment stimuli or altering thoughts; these include behavioral therapy (Spiegler & Guevremont, 1998) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (Beck, 1967).

Current academic psychology does not include inquiries about the character or function of the self, nor does it explore the self’s role in people’s psychological lives. Its interest is limited to the ideas or beliefs that people have about their selves, that is, their self-concepts. During its cognitive turn, academic psychology came to accept data about people’s subjective experiences and beliefs into its studies. The move to include people’s beliefs had been one advocated by the founders of humanistic psychology (e.g., Combs & Syngg, 1959). The founders’ understandings of the functions of the subjective realm were based on an organic metaphor and included growth, change, and purposive action. However, mainstream academic psychology has based its understanding of the subjective realm on a computer metaphor. Mental operations are seen as analogous to or isomorphic of computer operations, and the notion of self has been replaced by the idea of a mental executive or synthesizing function.

Viewing the operation of the mental realm as computerlike has allowed psychology to continue to rely on research designs left over from logical positivism. Thus, studies of the subjective realm are limited to correlations between people’s self-reported beliefs and their behavior. Among these studies are those that focus on people’s beliefs about their selves (rather than on concepts about the world or others). Osborne (1996), who reviewed the recent psychological research on the self-concept, identified more than 400 such studies. These studies were of three types: (a) those that investigated the type of information that the self-concept includes, (b) those that examined the stages of development of the self-concept during childhood (an area previously investigated by Rogers, 1951, and Sullivan, 1953), and (c) those that studied how variations in people’s self-concepts correlate with variations in their behavior.

The majority of studies are of the third type. They include studies of self-esteem in which the focus is on the aspect of people’s self-concepts that is related to the evaluation or esteem of their selves. They attempt to show that the more positive evaluations people’s self-concepts have of their selves, the better they will perform on various tasks. These studies have given impetus to a misplaced fascination with programs designed to increase self-esteem so as to increase performance, especially school performance (Hewitt, 1998). Another focus of this third type of studies has investigated variations in self-efficacy, that is, beliefs about how well one can perform a task and how well one actually performs it. Studies have focused on the effect of various other aspects of people’s concepts about the self on performance, perception, and interpretation of new information (see, e.g., Klein & Loftus, 1988).

The founders distinguished between ideas or concepts people have about their selves and their actual selves. A concept about the self is a mental representation of one’s self. One’s self-concept can be an accurate representation (congruent) or a misrepresentation (incongruent). The founders’ concern was with the relationship between people’s ideas and the referent of those ideas—the actual self. The attention of current academic psychology has focused on the relationship between variations in people’s thoughts about their selves and variations in their behaviors. The founders’ attention was focused on the relationship between people’s thoughts about their selves and their actual selves. The absence of the actual self in academic psychology is implied by the neglect to include it in its research programs. However, the absence of the self is explicitly declared by postmodernist philosophy.

The Absence of the Self in Postmodern Philosophy

Prior to postmodernism, the self had a central place in the theological and philosophical views of the West. Postmodernist writers have attacked the idea of self and hold that the notion of the existence of self was a philosophical mistake. The mistake came from erroneously assuming that, because in the grammar of Western languages verbs (action words) require nouns or agents as the subjects that perform the actions, there must be a self or subject that is the causal author of these actions. The postmodernist view is that although a person has a concept of self, there is nothing to which the concept refers; that is, the self is an empty concept.

The idea of self assaulted by postmodern writers had been worked out by Descartes during the early 1600s. Descartes had translated the medieval theological notion of the soul into a modern philosophical notion of mind or self. Western religious thought held that a human was made up of two parts: the soul and the physical body. The essence of a person was his or her soul, and the soul was one’s true self. The physical body was but a temporary vehicle in which the soul resided until the body perished. Once created, the soul existed eternally, and after its sojourn in a physical body, it ascended to heaven or descended to hell, where it remained until the Second Coming. The soul had a spiritual (not physical) existence, and it was invested with freedom so that its bearer had personal responsibility for choosing good or evil.

The emerging scientific view challenged, and eventually overthrew, the medieval view of the world. Aided by the breakup of the unified church by the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent disruptions of the Thirty Years’ War (Toulmin, 1990), the hegemony of the medieval view of the world was fractured. Whereas the medieval view saw the world as a stage for God’s activities and held that events in the world were mysterious expressions of God’s interventions, the scientific view saw the world as ordered and lawful and without mystery. The scientific view saw the world as disenchanted.

It was Descartes’s task to reformulate the medieval view into one that retained the spiritual dimension while, at the same time, accepting the scientific view of an ordered and lawful world. The new formulation developed by Descartes has, in the main, held sway in philosophy for more than three centuries. It has served as the framework for what is termed the modern period. Descartes began by depicting the physical world (which included people’s bodies) as consisting of causally ordered mechanical relationships among objects (whose basic property was extension in space). These relationships could be known through scientific investigation, and this knowledge could be used to achieve power over nature. However, this view of the world left out the knower, that aspect of reality that knows about and directs the body’s actions in the world. Descartes called this aspect mind or self. Its basic property had to be other than what held for physical reality. Thus, he described it as lacking extension in space.

The modern philosophical view of the self has continued to rely on Descartes’s original formulation. The mind, which does not have physical properties, functions as the aspect of a person that knows, thinks, and directs the movement of the body. The mind comes to know in two ways: (a) through the information it receives from the body’s senses and (b) through its use of reason. The mind learns about the world through the body but learns about eternal truths, such as the truths of mathematics and geometry, through the exercise of its reasoning capacity. It is only through this second way of knowing that the mind can come to certain knowledge. In Descartes’s famous description of methodical doubt, he described how all that he thinks he knows can be doubted except his existence as mind or self. On this certainty of his existence as mind, he could rebuild his faith in the rest of his mind’s knowledge.

It is this modern view of mind or self (a nonphysical thing that knows, thinks, and directs the body’s motion) that postmodernism rejects. Postmodern writers follow in the skeptical steps of Hume, who said that when he examined his thoughts, he could not find a thinker who thought them. The postmodernists do not accept Descartes’s rationally derived proof that if there are doubts (or thoughts), then there must be something that is doing the doubting (or thinking). Postmodern phrases, such as decentering the self and the death of the subject, are slogans aimed against Descartes’s modernistic formulation of a self or subject as that aspect of a person that knows. Postmodern writers agree with Ryle’s (1949) statement that there is no “ghost in the machine”; they have abandoned the notion of self (Anderson, 1997).

A central theme of postmodern thought is that thoughts are not simple mirrored representations of worldly objects (Rorty, 1979). Rather, thinking is done in words, and because there is an arbitrary relation between words (signifiers) and the things to which they refer (the signified), thoughts are reflections of one’s language, not of the objects of an independent world. Because different languages divide up the world differently, peoples of different cultures and languages think about the world differently. Because thought is mediated by language and because there is no universal reason, one cannot know for certain whether one’s thoughts accurately correspond to what is thought about.

Thus, just because there is a word self (a signifier) in our language does not imply that there is such a thing as a self. Postmodern theory, in its position on the existence of a self, neglects its general skeptical position and takes the stand that there is no such thing as a self that is the referent of the word self. The concept of self is held to be a fictional creation of Western grammar and cognitive schemes. There is no self, so the concept is not informed by a real referent, nor is it susceptible to correction. The humanistic idea that the concept of self can be congruent or incongruent with one’s actual self is dismissed because there is no actual self.

The concept of self is a creation of Western culture and may serve psychological functions within that culture, but just because it may have psychological benefits does not mean that it exists. In arguing for the cultural creation of the concept of self, some postmodern writers have pointed out that not all cultures include a belief in the self; for example, Buddhists believe in a nonself (Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991).

With no actual self to inquire about, postmodern writers, like contemporary academic psychologists, have limited their concern to the function of people’s concepts about the self. Because self-concepts are a cultural product, they vary according to the historical period and local culture in which people live. German philosophers of the 19th century had developed the notion that people living during different historical periods had dissimilar cognitive frames, and anthropologists had reported that the cognitive frames of different cultures also were dissimilar. From these findings, postmodernists propose that concepts about the self share no universal characteristics but are completely relative. People’s understandings of the world, others, and themselves are a function of their different culturally given interpretative schemes, and their thoughts and actions always are mediated and constructed through the lens of these schemes. The modernist idea that we could progressively come to a more truthful understanding of the world and self was wrong. Instead, the diverse understandings of people are simply different, and one conceptual framework is not more truthfully revealing than are others.

The heyday of postmodernism is drawing to a close. Its relativistic skepticism appears now as an overreaction to the recognition that science does not produce absolutely certain truths (Anderson, 1990). Philosophical efforts have moved on to investigate how people can pragmatically guide their lives and solve the problems they encounter. Rather than accepting a dichotomy between certain truth and no truth, philosophers have turned to the idea of “good enough” knowledge. Without the assurance that understanding is totally true, one can know enough to accomplish daily tasks and live a meaningful life. Within this context, theorists are beginning to reconsider the postmodernists’ rejection of the self and to look again at its role in human existence.

Contemporary Vehicles for Humanistic Views of the Self

Current philosophical theories are being constructed that take account of the postmodernists’ critique of modernist assumptions but move beyond them. These theories reach conclusions about knowledge of the self that differ from the skeptical and cynical deductions of postmodern writers. Some of these theories are compatible with the ideas and values of the humanistic founders and offer possible frameworks for communicating humanistic ideas to contemporary audiences. The rest of the chapter is devoted to a brief exposition of Neisser’s self-knowledge, Lakoff’s philosophy of the flesh, Gendlin’s experiencing, and Ricoeur’s narrative conception of the self.

Neisser’s Self-Knowledge

Neisser’s theory (Neisser, 1988, 1993a; Neisser & Fivush, 1994; Neisser & Jopling, 1997) agrees with postmodernism in rejecting the idea that there is “an inner self of some kind, a‘real me’ who is (or should be) ultimately responsible for behavior” (Neisser, 1993b, p. 3). Neisser says that he is in full agreement with contemporary philosophy, as well as with neuroscience, that “the brain is not organized by any Cartesian flow toward and from some inmost center” (p. 4). However, this position does not lead Neisser to reject the idea of a self. Instead, he views the self not as a special part of a person but rather as the whole person considered from a particular point of view. I think that humanistic psychology’s founders’ position that the self is a developmental tendency or inclination, and not a core homunculus, could accommodate Neisser’s proposition by regarding the self as a tendency affecting the whole person. Maslow’s (1954, 1968) inclusion of accomplishment of multiple needs implies that the self is directed to the development of all aspects of a person.

Neisser’s work understands the self as a more general notion than the founders’ view that the self is the actualizing tendency. He employs the term self in a way that is similar to Allport’s (1937, 1955) use, that is, referring to all of the various aspects of one’s personhood or personality that an individual would identity as his or her own. The focus of Neisser’s work is the different forms of information that contribute to the experience of one’s self. He identifies five aspects of self that are informed by five types of self-specifying information: the ecological self, the interpersonal self, the extended self, the private self, and the conceptual self. The first two types of information are directly perceived, not mediated through conceptual frameworks (the postmodern position). The ecological self is experienced as the perceiver of the environment in the sense of Gibson’s (1979) visual kinesthesis theory. According to Gibson, changing perceptions of worldly objects include perceptions of one’s own movement and posture. The ecological self is the self perceived in relation to the physical environment and the effect that one has on this environment. “I am the person here in this place, engaged in this particular activity” (Neisser, 1988, p. 36). Knowledge of the interpersonal self is informed by the directly experienced emotional rapport and face-to-face communicative interaction with others.

Neisser draws on recent research on early childhood as the basis for his assertion that a person’s experience of being located in and acting on the world and the experience of being in relation to other people are directly perceived. Neisser (1993b) says, “We can see and hear and feel what we are doing, both ecologically and interpersonally” (p. 4). His view provides an opening for the founders’ notion that aspects of the self, in particular the self as tendency, are not simply an illusory projection of self-concept but rather are directly available to experience. Thus, these direct experiences of the self can serve as corrections to beliefs about one’s self that are produced by culturally imposed distortions. The ecological and interpersonal experiences continue to inform people throughout their lives. They are not discarded and replaced by conceptually interpreted experience when children learn to use the mediating conceptual categories that come with language acquisition (McIntosh, 1995).

The remaining three types of information used to specify one’s self differ from the directly experienced ecological and interpersonal. They are available only through reflective thinking about one’s self. The extended self is based on personal memories and imagined futures. It is a reconstruction derived from remembered ecological and interpersonal experiences. The private self represents the conclusion that some of one person’s experiences are not directly shared by other people and that this person is the only person who feels, for example, this unique and particular pain. Neisser’s fifth self, the conceptual self or self-concept, is similar to the founders’ view of the self-concept and consists of people’s beliefs about themselves. Neisser (1988) says, “There is a remarkable variety in what people believe about themselves, and not all of it is true” (p. 36). Thus, like the founders, Neisser holds that one’s self-concept can distort and hide aspects of who one “really is.”

Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy of the Flesh

Lakoff and Johnson (Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson 1980, 1981, 1999) distinguish two generations in the development of cognitive science. The first generation, which evolved during the 1950s and 1960s, was begun, like humanistic psychology, as a movement to correct psychology’s over-dependence on behavioristic understanding of humans. However, it changed direction when its approach took up the newly available computer as its model of mental functioning (Gardner, 1985). The computer model fit well with the view of Anglo-American analytic philosophy that mental reasoning, like computers, functioned by logically manipulating symbols. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) say the following of the first generation of cognitive scientists: “It seemed natural [to them] that the mind could be studied in terms of its cognitive functions, ignoring any ways in which those functions arise from the body and brain” (p. 75).

The second generation of cognitive scientists, which arose during the late 1970s, called into question the notion that thought was unaffected by the body and was ordered according to the patterns of formal logic. The second-generation view was derived from research findings showing that (a) there is a strong dependence of concepts and reasoning on the body and that (b) “imaginative processes, especially metaphor, imagery, metonymy, prototypes, frames, mental spaces, and radical categories” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, p. 77) were central to conceptualization and reason.

The focus of Lakoff and Johnson’s work is on the source of concepts that people use to interpret and make sense of the world, others, and the self. The traditional view was that the source of the concepts that we use to organize experience is the world itself; that is, our concepts are simply representations of the natural types of things in the world. As stated previously, postmodernism argued against this view and held, in its place, the notion that the world lacked a permanent order. It held that any order of sense that was made of the world was a misleading human construction. The types of sense that one made of the world were a function of the conceptual furniture supplied by one’s particular culture, not a reflection of an actual order. Against this postmodern position, Lakoff and Johnson propose that the type of conceptual order that humans make is based on basic-level bodily experiences. These bodily experiences are metaphorically extended to supply structural models of higher level experiences. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) hold that the conceptual metaphor is one of our central intellectual tools. “[Conceptual metaphor] is the principal instrument of abstract reason, the means by which inferential structures of concrete domains are employed in abstract domains” (p. 155). For example, time is understood through the metaphor of “motion of objects past an observer” (p. 141).

In concert with the proposition that abstract concepts are largely metaphorical, Lakoff and Johnson hold that the mind is inherently embodied and that thought is mostly unconscious. They hold that thought does not take place in a disembodied realm of reason (an idea left over from Descartes’s notion of mental substance); rather, it is an activity of the body itself. The idea of embodiment, including the idea that the self is embodied, was not foreign to humanistic psychology’s founders. They did not conceive of the actualizing tendency as located in a disembodied realm of thought; rather, it was a tendency toward growth and maturity that was present in all living things. Rogers explicitly held an organic understanding of the self. Allport included in his list of the aspects of one’s own personhood the notion of the bodily sense. Neisser also recognized the embodied nature of the ecological self. Thus, Lakoff and Johnson’s theories, along with Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) idea of the body-subject and “the flesh” and Varela and colleagues’ (1991) notion of an embodied mind, can provide humanistic psychology support in emphasizing the bodily character of the self.

Lakoff and Johnson’s view that thought occurs mostly out of awareness is aligned with Rogers’s view that the operation of the tendency for growth is not under conscious control. Instead, its operation depends on clearing away distorted blocking beliefs about one’s self by providing an environment of positive regard. Existential humanists, although emphasizing the conscious responsibility to choose to act in ways consistent with the actualizing tendency, can locate the experience of self below the level of conscious awareness.

Gendlin’s Intricacy and Self

Gendlin (1962, 1997; see also Levin, 1997) is a psychotherapist and philosopher. He worked with Rogers when the latter was at the University of Chicago, and his theories have special relevance for humanistic psychology. Like Neisser and Lakoff and Johnson, Gendlin’s work concerns the relationship between experience and the concepts we use to order experience. In opposition to postmodernists, he holds that experience is not a construction of culturally imposed structures; rather, experience is the result of a more fundamental interaction between a person and the world. Gendlin’s basic thesis is that the source of speech and action is experience (or experiencing, a term he uses to emphasize that experience is an ongoing process, not a thing). Experiencing is our interaction with life situations and the bodily felt meanings that these situations have for us. It consists of a more complex and intricate order than the concepts and distinctions that inhere in language. Speech and action are partial expressions of the intricate multiplicity of experiencing. Experiencing has a more complex order than does language and remains in excess of what one says. Words become meaningful as they are used to communicate and reflect on an aspect of one’s felt experience. Gendlin’s theory of felt meaning reverses the notion that conceptual distinctions and structures are the determinants of speech and actions. Instead, he holds that words and phrases are drawn out of experiencing and that words retain flexibility in use to express new meanings and concepts. He lends support to the view held by Lakoff and Johnson that conscious deliberation does not decide most human activity; rather, it flows directly from felt meaning.

In his Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Gendlin (1962), like the founders, argues that his theory of felt meaning was an alternative to the logical positivists’ view of the workings of language. During the nearly four decades since its publication, the philosophical landscape has changed. Postmodernists, in addition to discarding the self, dismantled positivism’s epistemological claims to produce certain knowledge. Levin (1985) writes that Gendlin’s more recent position regarding language takes a middle road between the empiricist-rationalist tradition and the structural and poststructural traditions. The empiricist-rational tradition, which maintained Descartes’s mind-body distinction, held that representations of objects in the world were created in the mind by the association of sense data and/or clear and distinct ideas. Inherent in this position was the question of how one can be certain that the mental representations are accurate reflections of objects in the “external” world. Language was either understood to be a simple tool to communicate one’s mental representations or understood to consist of a series of propositions representing the states of affairs in the world. Structuralism changed the focus of philosophy from a subject’s mental representations to the language system in which he or she spoke and wrote. The conceptual network of a particular language was held to determine the forms and categories through which one experienced the world. Poststructuralists and postmodernists attacked the sign-signified connection and posed that one cannot use language to think outside language, and therefore, one cannot guarantee the meanings of words. They held that there is no such thing as objective meanings and that attaching particular meanings to words always is arbitrary and dictated by politics or power and not by the words themselves. The notion that there is a disconnect between words and objects has gained further support from a relativistic reading of hermeneutics. Nietzsche held that all is interpretation (i.e., there is no epistemological foundation for the conceptual network exhibited in a language), and Heidegger (1962) proposed that how one understood the world was a function of the historical and cultural tradition in which one stood. Thus, there is no direct access to the things in themselves. The postmodernists extended the implications of the word-world disconnect into an extreme skepticism and relativism.

Gendlin provides a viable alternative to the empiricist-rationalist philosophies based on the discredited subject-object dichotomy and to the relativism of postmodernism. Gendlin turns attention to what had been neglected by these positions—the bodily felt meaning. Because felt meaning is more intricate than can be expressed through the concepts and formations of language, Gendlin uses the sign “….” to refer to felt meaning. The “….” is the source of the creation of meaning. Felt meaning is not an inner representation of outside objects; instead, it consists of people’s responsive interplay with the situated thickness in which they live.

Gendlin opens up the space in which the experiencing of the self takes place. Knowledge of the self is, first, a bodily felt knowing, not a conceptual construction. The self is complexly interwoven within a person’s experiencing of the situational interactions that exist between the person and the world, others, and the self. The self and its intricate relations within experience cannot be abstracted out into the conceptual forms of language without distortion. However, languaged descriptions of the self can be judged as more or less congruent with the self as it is present in one’s experiencing. Gendlin’s work leads humanistic psychology to an understanding that the self exists beyond the imagined image that is constructed by culturally provided categories. The acceptance of a preverbal sense of the self that continues to exist after the development of the capacity to conceive of the self in language “call[s] us to conceive of a primordial, interpersonal, and meaningful relationship with the world that grounds our adult conceptions in an innocent and direct engagement of body and world” (Simms, 1993, p. 39).

Ricoeur’s Narrative Conception of the Self

Ricoeur (1984, 1991, 1992), like the other theorists just described, is primarily concerned with the conceptual forms used to understand and give sense to one’s experiential complex. His philosophical work is based on his continuing interest in the negotiation between “living experience and [languaged] conceptualization” (Ricoeur, 1995b, p. 123). He accepts the idea that there is a realm of human life that is outside language to which language can refer; this acceptance differentiates him, as it did Gendlin, from the postmodernists. He also proposes that the structure and conceptual network of a language does not produce a mirrored literal description of the realm of human experiencing. He believes that the intricate and complex structuring present in lived experience differs from the literal meanings and structures of language. Thus, Ricoeur turns to language’s capacity to be used artistically to reveal structures that would have remained unrecognized without art (Carr, Taylor, & Ricoeur, 1991). Ricoeur, before his investigation of narrative identity, had rejected Husserl’s assumption that reflection on one’s own consciousness was the privileged way to truth. In his explorations in The Symbolism of Evil (Ricoeur, 1969) and Freud and Philosophy (Ricoeur, 1970), he comes to appreciate that some aspects of experiencing cannot be brought directly to awareness. Merleau-Ponty (1962) said that reflecting on one’s experience is like looking down a well; the light only reaches so far, and beyond that is the darkness. Thus, Ricoeur supports Lakoff and Johnson’s position that much of experiencing and responding happens outside awareness and that literal language is unable to describe life’s deepest experiences.

Ricoeur proposes that although language neither describes reality nor is severed from reality, it does serve to redescribe reality. In his “Intellectual Autobiography,” Ricoeur (1995) says that he remembers having raised the questions “Was the distinction between sense and reference still valid in the case of metaphorical statements?” and “Could one say of metaphor that it uncovered aspects [or] dimensions of the real world that direct discourse left hidden?” (p. 28). He reaches the conclusion that “it is the language freest of all prosaic constraints … that is most available to express the secret of things” (p. 28). Thus, for Ricoeur, aspects of the experiential complex are best displayed through the figural functioning of concepts rather than the literal functioning. It is the configural operations of metaphors and narratives (stories) that allow the complex of experience to show itself.

Ricoeur points out that different types of concepts account for their referents in different ways. The two major types of concepts are paradigmatic and narrative concepts (Bruner, 1986). Paradigmatic concepts depict their referents as a type of something, for example, the conceptual understanding of one’s self as male or female, tall or short, good or bad, and so on. Paradigmatic concepts limit the display of what is referred to as an instance of some stable category. Narratively structured concepts display processes and changes that occur over time (Polkinghorne, 1988). The founders held that the essence of self was a process or pattern of change, not a type of matter or form. Because of this, paradigmatic concepts, which are able to present something only as an instance of a category (i.e., as an instantiation of a type or form), cannot display the self as the process it essentially is (Polkinghorne, 1991). Because the founders viewed the self as an activity or process of change guided by the tendency to actualize an inherent potential, narrative concepts come closer than paradigmatic concepts to exhibiting the self as process.

Narrative is a special type of discourse production. Narratives configure happenings and actions into coherent wholes by means of emplotment. A plot is a type of conceptual frame through which the contextual meaning of and connections among events can be displayed. A simple story, “The king died and the prince cried,” illustrates the power of narrative form to give relational meaning to seemingly independent happenings. In isolation, the two happenings are simply the description of two independent events. When composed into a story, the happenings become parts of a drama. The prince’s crying shows up as a response to his father’s death.

The primary dimension of the living person is temporal, not spatial. The founders understood human being as an activity, that is, as human be-ing or becoming (Allport, 1955), not as a nounlike substance. May (1958) wrote,

[Existentialists] are struck by the fact that the most profound human experiences, such as anxiety, depression, and joy, occur more in the dimension of time than in space. They boldly place time in the center of the psychological picture and proceed to study it not in the traditional way as an analogy to space but [rather] in its own existential meaning for the patient. (p. 65)

Ricoeur proposes that narrative or story is the linguistic form that least distorts temporal experience. From the perspective of humanistic psychology, the basic plot of people’s life stories is about their struggles to actualize their inherent potentials.

Some philosophers of narrative (Carr, 1986; MacIntyre, 1981) have proposed that experiencing itself has a narrative form. For example, Carr (1986) stated that he has been “urging that narration is not only a mode of discourse but more essentially a mode, perhaps the mode of life” (p. 173), and MacIntyre (1981) stated, “We all live out narratives in our lives and … we understand our own lives in terms of the narrative[s] that we live out” (p. 212). The position that experiencing itself has a narrative form is called the life as narrative position. Other philosophers (Neisser, 1994; Sass, 1992; White, 1978) hold a view, similar to postmodernism, that experiencing is unorganized and has no discernible structure. For them, the narrative form is an imposition of the languaged narrative structure on what is actually unstructured and fragmented. This position is called the life versus narrative position.

Ricoeur thinks that these two positions exaggerate the relation of narrative structure to experiencing. Ricoeur believes that a dynamic relation holds between life as narratively emplotted and life as lived. He proposes that narrative configuration moves through three stages. The first stage involves a return to the original or prelinguistic felt sense of human action. He holds that our primordial experiences of ourselves and others have a “pre-narrative quality” and are inchoate or incipient narratives. His position is that this characteristic of our pre-narrative awareness of human conduct, on reflection, appears as unfinished and “constitutes a demand for narrative” (Ricoeur, 1984, p. 74). Our prefigured experiencing calls for a reflective review that can consider the unintentional (as well as intentional) effects of our actions, the consequences of which we could not be aware at the time of the actions. The reflective review integrates the pre-narrative understandings we had at the time of the actions and happenings with understandings that we have gained from the perspective of hindsight.

The second stage consists of a narrative composition in which experienced actions are linked together as contributors to or detractors from achieving an intended purpose. By configuring lived actions into meaningful wholes, an order and coherence is unveiled that did not previously appear in life as lived. The construction of a narrative story consists of more than simply gathering the discordant elements uncovered in the first stage and placing them in chronological order. Merleau-Ponty (1962) wrote that we are not “a succession of‘psychic’ acts, … but [rather] one single experience inseparable from itself, one single‘living cohesion’ ” (p. 407). Narrative structuring serves to accomplish the move to a unified identity that is inherent, but not yet accomplished, in our pre-narrative existence.

The third stage consists of the new actions that are the result of the renewed lived understanding of who we are that has been brought about by the second stage narrative composition. These new actions fold back into the first stage as additional components of one’s lived experiencing. These continuing changes in experiencing lead to continual revisions in the composed story of one’s life. Thus, one’s narrative understanding of one’s life is constantly under revision as one circles through the three stages of the narrative process.

Ricoeur’s formulation of the relationship among experiencing, the narrative configuration of experiencing, and changes in actions provides a format for describing the operation of the humanistic notion of the actualizing tendency. The self becomes manifest in a person’s actions as the person evolves his or her life stories toward one in which the experienced inherent potential is displayed in the person’s actions.

At the time when the founders of humanistic psychology wrote, academic psychology had no place for the self in its stimulus-response paradigm, and mainstream philosophy had not yet moved beyond a Cartesian view of the self as an immaterial soullike substance. In their clinical experiences, the founders encountered in their clients a propensity to actualize their potential to become fully developed humans. From this encounter, the founders developed the innovative and insightful notion that this propensity was the core of humanness; that is, it is the self. During the four decades since the founders wrote, their understanding of the self has become integral to many approaches to psychotherapy. However, neither academic psychology nor philosophy has, as yet, incorporated the founders’ perceptive understanding of the self. Because psychology and the philosophical context have undergone immense changes since the founders wrote, affecting these disciplines’ understanding of the self requires their restatement in a contemporary idiom. I have described four contemporary theories—Neisser’s self-knowledge, Lakoff’s philosophy of the flesh, Gendlin’s experiencing, and Ricoeur’s narrative conception of the self—that capture the view of self as an embodied tendency to become what is inherently intended for authentic human existence. These theories can provide entry into contemporary psychology and philosophy of the founders’ view of the self.